Survey: NMUSD Staff Asks for More Help in Student Mental Healthcare

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A Newport-Mesa Unified School District survey showed only about a third of employees feel their school has enough staff to support students’ mental health.
— Mary Pahlke from Pixaba

A Newport-Mesa Unified School District survey showed only about a third of district employees feel their school has enough staff to support students’ mental health and well-being, a far lower grade than those offered by students and parents.

On Tuesday, school board member Dana Black asked the district’s leadership to explain the discrepancy. Phil D’Agostino, director of student and community services, said he wanted to further examine the survey’s results before offering an explanation of the mental health services ratings in the 2018-19 Local Control Accountability Survey.

The district hired additional mental health service providers earlier this year to address students’ behavioral issues and social-emotional needs but more work needs to bed done, said Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers (NMFT), which also represents school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses.

“The community has had really strong conversations about academic and extracurricular workload and how that impacts teen stress,” Dowdy said. “The community is making efforts but this is a larger more pervasive problem that is larger than a school district.”

A district spokesperson said district administrators weren’t available to comment Thursday.

The shortage of licensed professionals at the Newport-Mesa campuses is a microcosm of the daunting challenges facing mental healthcare providers across the nation. NMFT has communicated students’ needs for more access to counseling for the last two years.

Newport-Mesa Unified still doesn’t have the same number of counselors it had before the 2008 recession. There’s a huge need for elementary school counselors to intervene when students’ disruptive behavior continually interrupts lessons.

Corona del Mar High School invited outside agencies and volunteers to counsel students and opened a drop-in center that’s open during the school’s business hours. Dowdy also gave school board member Karen Yelsey credit for also bringing additional services to both CdM and Newport Harbor high schools.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist per 500 students. Newport-Mesa Unified is meeting that standard.

Association spokesperson Katherine Cowan said the training and skill set of school psychologists is very different from clinical practice because of schools’ dynamic nature, especially during the lunch hour.

“It’s great to have partnerships with community resources and parents who are trained and educated as therapists or counselors, that is not a substitute to have mental health professionals who are trained to work in schools,” she said.

State law requires all secondary school teachers to participate in annual training to recognize the warning signs of a student in crisis.

Newport-Mesa district’s six social workers are stretched thin handling a few dozen extreme cases of emotionally-disturbed students who have troubling home lives exacerbate significant behavior and learning problems, Dowdy said.

“What we’ve done is we’ve pieced together this system that’s not completely thought out with all the pieces in place and the teachers trained,” Dowdy said.

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